Is helping the poor a moral obligation?

Is helping the poor a moral obligation?

By Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee, Friday, Apr. 05, 2013

The President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, recently announced the goal of eliminating extreme poverty by the year 2030. Kim noted that there are 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty, 870 million who go hungry every day, and 6.9 million children under 5 who die every year as a result. Kim concluded that helping the poor is “a moral imperative.”

Moral imperatives establish duties and obligations. If Kim is right that there is a duty to help the poor, then it is wrong not to help them. If there is a duty to help the poor, we should feel guilty when we are not helping them.

Billions of people live on less than $2.50 per day — what we pay for a café latte or an ice cream treat. Should we feel guilty for indulging in such luxuries while children die of deprivation?

Most of us don’t feel guilty as we spend money on trivial luxuries. Perhaps we’re morally clueless. It is easy to ignore suffering that is hidden in distant places. But the more plausible explanation is that people don’t agree with Kim that helping the poor is a moral imperative.

We think it would be nice to help the impoverished. But charity is not obligatory. We might also think that global poverty is simply not our own fault. If we’ve done nothing wrong, then we should not feel guilty or blameworthy.

Most people would agree that there is a duty to help those whom we’ve wronged or harmed. If I am riding on someone else’s back, I have an obligation to get off his back. If I am somehow contributing to the problems of the poor, then I might be blamed for their plight.

But are middle-class Americans riding on the backs of the global poor?

We do benefit from cheap consumer goods and resources that are produced and extracted by the world’s working poor. Your clothes, for example, were most likely made by poor people working in dangerous conditions. In November, a garment factory burned down in Bangladesh. Clothing was manufactured there for American brands. More than 100 people died in the fire. According to the New York Times, the minimum wage for workers in that factory was about $40 per month — just over $1 per day.

The clothes we wear are manufactured by poor people, who may die as a result of dangerous working conditions. Does that create an obligation on our part? Or is that just the result of free market economics?

Thomas Pogge, an ethics professor from Yale, discussed this question last week in San Francisco at a meeting of the American Philosophical Association. Pogge received a prize for an article where he argues that the international system unjustly violates the human rights of the world’s poor.

Pogge thinks that injustices in the global economic structure create an obligation to the poor. He admits that failing to save people is not as bad as killing them. But Pogge claims that we are not simply failing to save the poor. Instead, he claims, the international system is rigged against them.

From Pogge’s perspective, we are riding on backs of the global poor, actively contributing to their poverty. Affluent nations extract profit and resources from poor countries, while poor countries cannot overcome the headwind created by international systems. We should get off their backs and compensate them for their predicament.

It might be that if we did not purchase products manufactured in foreign sweatshops, we would further impoverish the global poor. It might also be that donations to the poor cause dependency and corruption.

Those practical concerns do not weaken the moral claim that we have an obligation to the poor. We need to be careful and strategic as we readjust global economic priorities. But the President of the World Bank appears to agree with the ethics professor that there is a moral obligation to create a world free of poverty.

As you sip your $3 coffee, you might insist that the global economy is none of your business. But there is a growing consensus that it is our business to be concerned about the affliction of those whose labor fills our cups.

Animal Play, Religion, and Poverty

All children deserve time to play

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-05-19

Most mammals play. We even play with members of different species — as we do with our pets. This is an odd development in a world in which species are supposed to struggle for existence against one another.

Animals at play are not struggling to survive. Rather, they are engaged in imaginative and empathetic activity. Some nonhuman animals even appear to have a basic idea of “fair play.”

At least that is what Robert Bellah claims. Bellah, one of the most important scholars of religion in the U.S., gave a lecture last week at Fresno State on his new book, “Religion in Human Evolution.” The book explains the evolutionary roots of ethics, religion and philosophy.

Bellah argues that play is an important source of these higher goods. Play occurs in a “relaxed field,” when we are not focused on mere existence. Religious rituals, for example, are examples of rule-governed play. Philosophy, art and science develop as we play with ideas. These activities are meaningful on their own, without reference to the struggle to survive. And they provide solace and satisfaction, as a break from the labor of living.

One could argue that a fully human life is one in which there are ample opportunities for enjoying playful and empathetic activity, outside of the concerns of work and survival. All work and no play makes us dull animals — as the saying might go. Bellah suggests that this is true of many species. Animals thrive when they are free to explore, relax and socialize.

The importance of leisure and play is found in our dreams of a perfect world. Our utopian ideals and religious paradises describe a world without labor, struggle or conflict. Christians dream of lions lying down with lambs. And Plato imagined a peaceful world in which we would play at pastimes — “sacrificing, singing and dancing.”

It makes sense that intelligent animals would imagine an ideal world in which the struggle for existence was overcome. We lament the hard work of life. We aspire to freedom from want. We even imagine that after the toils of life, we may be rewarded by resting in peace without the need to labor.

Surplus resources and physical security make it possible for us to play, reflect, explore and create. Bellah explains that even in nonhuman species, play behavior is made possible by protective parents who provide for basic needs. Nurturing parents allow the young to experiment and romp without fear of predators or hunger. This sort of nurturance allows the animal to take a break from feeding and fighting in order to frolic.

During his visit to Fresno, Bellah returned several times to the issue of poverty and injustice. The sad fact is that there are many human beings who are not free to play — people who have little time or energy for singing, dancing, science, art, religion or philosophy. This is unfair, especially when others enjoy substantial luxury.

The idea of social justice, as found in the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions, develops from this basic idea of fairness. Philosophers and prophets have long criticized injustice and inequality. Bellah suggests that fairness itself may have roots in animal evolution. He claims that some animals seem to show a sense of “fair play.” Dogs will take turns, for example, chasing each other.

Bellah connects play with childhood. But he notes that in some parts of the world the play of childhood remains a privilege of the wealthy, unavailable for poor children. Across the globe, millions of children go hungry, while Americans spend more than $50 billion per year on pet food and animal care.

Bellah writes that one way of describing unfairness is to say that “while some work, others play.” We might add that there is something unfair about a world in which dogs are well-fed, while children starve.

We flatter ourselves in thinking we are more highly evolved than the other animals. But a species that fails to provide for its own children is not clearly superior. Bellah’s evolutionary account of religion reminds us that there is still a long way to go to make sure that all human children have the opportunity to live as well as our dogs do.